When the Rugby Football Union part-hosted the 1999 World Cup with Wales, Richard Prescott’s best memories weren’t with the England team.
“New Zealand were playing France and no one expected France to win. At half time half a dozen of the France players disappeared”, chuckled Richard. He continued:
“Two of us went around to the back of the dressing room and found three of the French players having a cigarette. I’m not sure what effect that had but France came out and played one of the best halves of rugby I’ve ever seen.”
Things were a little bit different back then. Athletes could smoke a cigarette and win World Cup semi-finals and journalists could go train with Premier League clubs for a laugh. Now it is strict diets and professionally managed social media accounts.
Richard was part of the first press department of the RFU – set up two years after Rugby went professional – and subsequently worked at three Rugby World Cups, the London 2012 Olympics and the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
The increasing interest of sponsors and media in sports has made the role of press officers more important than ever:
“We went to Australia for the 2003 Rugby World Cup where we had huge media attention on the team. In the final week we ended up having 300 media in press conferences. Rugby was becoming big business, because millions were watching it on terrestrial TV, Sky and subsequently BT Sport.”
A press officer’s main responsibility is to ensure that media members and partners get the information they need from the press officer’s organisation. It never is perfect but the challenge is to keep everyone as happy as possible.
Although it seems like PR has widened the gap between athletes and the media, Richard thinks that challenges relating to media access – even in some sports like football – can still be overcome.
“Someone like Pete (Stevens) is very good at developing relationships with London clubs. So when BBC Radio London ask ‘can we interview x’, most of the times it is a yes. Relationships for me are just as important. If that relationship is there, people are more relaxed, you get better content and athletes talk in a non-cliched way.”
Richard met Pete Stevens, now head of sports at BBC Radio London, at the beginning of his career. Back then, Prescott was working at the PR department of a company called Cable & Wireless and was sent to Radio 5 to talk about creating fun messages for telephone answering machines!
He left a favourable impression on the producers, who gave him a weekly radio segment to talk about any topic he wanted.
“That was a very strange twist of faith. I always enjoyed my sport so I came up with my own content. I even trained with West Ham United for a day!”, he laughs.
The show Richard worked for was eventually cancelled, but Richard continued working in radio as a reporter and commentator for BBC Radio London for another four years. Asked if working in journalism made him a better PR officer, he said:
“It’s not a must have, but it gives you that understanding of ‘I’ve been on the other side of the microphone myself’.”
It must have had an impact, as he landed the then newly-introduced PR job at the RFU and left the BBC as a result. He would stay with the RFU until the start of 2011.
It wasn’t long before Prescott got a call that would eventually lead him to work at London 2012:
“I was doing some contract and consultancy work when (Team GB’s then-Director of Communications) Miriam Wilkins was looking for someone to look after the boxing, wrestling and weightlifting teams for Team GB. Stuart Mawhinney, who was working for the FA at the time, kindly recommended me and I ended up volunteering for two-and-a-half weeks.”
From there, Richard went to Sochi as the senior press officer looking after the medallists. He also worked for a company called Whitbread before taking the Director of Communications position at St Mary’s University Twickenham:
“Having been to the recent Varsity day against Brunel and meeting the various academic staff and sports staff I can say I’ve made the right decision.”